It’s hard to know what the organizers at Fuji Rock Festival were thinking when they decided to have Jack Johnson headline the main stage on the event’s last day. Not the infectious cheer and endearingly kitsch theatricality of The Flaming Lips, who performed directly before, or even the guaranteed singalong power of anthem-merchants Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire, who had closed out the prior two nights, but Jack Johnson — a man who presumably gets most of his airplay from people on hold to understaffed call centers.
The decision may well be understood as: “We’ll end with who we want, and you’ll come back next year regardless.” And you will, because when all is said and done, Fuji Rock continues to be a consistently brilliant music festival.
This, my sixth time in attendance, was the year that I rediscovered its delights, thanks in no small part to the glorious weather: unusual for a festival normally subjected to the volatile changes of its mountain microclimate.
It meant that the walk to Field of Heaven and Orange Court, two of the festival’s furthest-removed stages — so often an arduous trek — turned into a therapeutic sunshine stroll along the boardwalk, which offers scenic views of a white birch-lined stream. Ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and Amsterdam jazz nine-piece Jungle By Night both impressed at Orange Court, but my pick for this year’s roster of performers is singer Minako Yoshida, who ran through a selection of hits that span her more-than-40-year career.
The good weather also meant that I was able to spend much of Saturday afternoon atop Mount Naeba at the picturesque Daydreaming stage, a 15-minute gondola ride away from the main festival grounds. Often rendered inaccessible by strong wind and rain, fans of the faraway stage took the opportunity to flock to the summit, which played host to at least two wedding ceremonies over the course of the weekend. While I was there, veteran British selector Mixmaster Morris instructed everyone to “wear sunscreen” with a spin of Baz Luhrmann’s 1998 hit, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen).” Meanwhile, on the main stage, Brit-pop act Travis ended its set with a tongue-in-cheek rendition of ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’ while the audience diligently applied another layer of SPF 50.
In contrast, the warehouselike confines of the Red Marquee were oppressive in the heat, but it was worth enduring to see the likes of St. Vincent, whose guitar took an absolute thrashing as she powered through opener “Rattlesnake,” as well as maverick violinist and Arcade Fire contributor Owen Pallett, who used pedals and live-looping to conjure up harmonious collages of pizzicato, bowing and delicate vocal melodies. And then there was the much-discussed Yoko Ono.
Ono, clearly unfazed by the reaction to her now-notorious Glastonbury performance, exuded positivity throughout her set. The 81-year-old, accompanied by producer Cornelius and members of Cibo Matto, asked the audience, “Why is life so beautiful? Why is the world so interesting?” — a curious comment given the precarious state of global affairs at the moment — before launching into a first-ever live performance of “O’Wind.”
The marquee’s nighttime offerings were more of a mixed bag: Jungle got things off to an excellent start on the Friday, before fellow Londoner and Plastic People resident Floating Points took over, bridging the duo’s soulful, funk-laden vibes into deeper, club-ready strands of jazz and acid-tinged house. However, Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside project was slightly underwhelming, and SBTRKT took a noticeable step backward from its 2011 Fuji debut with a performance that was too fixated on meandering live jams.
The Red Marquee’s star attraction, 17-year-old pop sensation Lorde, thrilled a capacity crowd with a rendition of megahit “Royals.” Or at least, I think she did. Predictably, it was nigh on impossible to get within earshot of the stage — an example of Fuji Rock’s insistence that acts work their way up (and, occasionally, down) the Red-White-Green pecking order of the three main stages.
The exception, it would seem, was the equally hyped-up debut of Disclosure, who was fast-tracked to the White Stage for its first Fuji appearance. The wannabe U.K. garage revivalist duo was surprisingly flat — a symptom of its reliance on guest vocalists in its productions. Without any guests on stage, the duo’s “live” set mostly consisted of some half-hearted slap bass and electronic drum solos while a MacBook running Ableton churned out the bulk of the beats.
Disclosure should really have had a word with Kelis, as no one was in finer vocal form all festival. Whether it was on classic hits such as “Milkshake” and “Millionaire” or cuts from new album “Food,” the R&B diva exhibited a star quality that few others matched up to.
On paper, the acts topping this year’s bill looked set to be guaranteed crowd-pleasers, and so it proved. Maneuvering in and out of flashlight-toting mobs while Denki Groove blasted out techno-pop on the main stage had me nostalgically yearning for Laser Tag birthday parties and 1990s sci-fi soundtracks (the rave scene in “Blade,” anyone?) in the best possible way.
The transition from indie darlings to stadium-rockers is rarely a painless one, although a decade on from the release of its debut album “Funeral,” Arcade Fire proved that it has at least navigated that path better than most. The band’s performance was mature and assured, although lacking the latent spark of aggression that had originally marked it as such an exciting prospect. Occasionally there was a flicker of the Win Butler and co. of old, such as the wonderfully anarchic and incongruous modular synth solo during “Reflektor.” The group’s renditions of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “No Cars Go” were also particularly spirited, even if the latter’s lyrics are perhaps a little bit too timely: “We know a place where no planes go.”
Conversely, it’s hard to imagine The Flaming Lips ever changing their style for anyone. Wayne Coyne, as ever, looked delightfully shambolic, outfitted in a combination of tinfoil and an “Attack on Titan” cosplay bodysuit that he’d no doubt copped from Don Quijote the night before. Naturally, he was flanked by giant dancing mushrooms. The group wasted no time, jumping almost straight into fan favorite “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1″ while unleashing a shower of confetti, setting the tone for a relatively short but saccharine sweet love-in.
Indeed, the only one of the main acts who couldn’t be said to have sent the crowd home happy was Jack Johnson, simply because there wasn’t much of one. To be fair to Johnson, he should have been playing during an afternoon or early evening rather than be tasked with the closing set, at a time when many festivalgoers retreat to the campsite to begin preparations for leaving, and those that remain are generally looking for something more lively.
Instead, it was Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “Andre 3000″ Benjamin — aka hip-hop powerhouse Outkast — who ended this year’s festival on an unforgettable high. The White Stage quickly packed out for the pair, who were joined by singer Sleepy Brown on several occasions during the set. Outkast opened with a raucous delivery of the politically charged “B.O.B” (“Bombs Over Baghdad”) that had the audience immediately fired up. From there the two expertly navigated between hits such as “Ms. Jackson” and “Hey Ya” as well as Dungeon-era favorites such as “Crumblin’ Erb.” Those in attendance lapped up every minute, fully aware that there might not be many chances to see the two in action again.
On the way out of the festival, the sign at the exit — which normally simply reads “See You Next Year” — this time said “See You In 2015,” followed by the dates, July 24, 25 and 26, and accompanied by a board displaying: “362 days until Fuji Rock.” For all but a handful of festivals across the world, something like that would come across as hubristic. But for Fuji Rock you let it slide, because regardless of whether you went to see Jack Johnson or “Ms. Jackson,” you’ll still be marking those dates in your diary.
Did you go to the Fuji Rock Festival this year? Tell us who your favorite acts were in the comments section!